The psychology of police violence: What makes so many cops have racial biases?

Are racist cops corrupted by power, or a self-selecting bunch? Psychologists share their insights

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 5, 2020 7:30PM (EDT)

Police officers in riot gear stand in formation at a cross street as they make their way to where protesters are gathered on May 30, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. Protests have erupted after recent police-related incidents resulting in the deaths of African-Americans Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
Police officers in riot gear stand in formation at a cross street as they make their way to where protesters are gathered on May 30, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. Protests have erupted after recent police-related incidents resulting in the deaths of African-Americans Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Any way you slice it, the statistics about American policing are damning. One study estimated that African American men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police during their lifetime, while another discovered that African Americans are twice as likely to be unarmed when shot by police than white people. Multiple studies have found that police officers disproportionately stop African American and Hispanic drivers and are disproportionately more likely to search them, even though they discover less contraband. Although African Americans comprise only 13 percent of the total population, they make up a quarter of the police shooting victims and more than one-third of the unarmed victims whose police shootings were fatal.

That raises a psychological question: is there something about those who are drawn to policing that makes them more likely to target people of color? Or is something happening on the job that predisposes them to bias? Answering that means turning to psychology for answers.

"I think what causes it is a lot of different reasons," Dr. Jameca Woody-Cooper, a psychologist in St. Louis, told Salon. "The most obvious of them all is just pure hatred and discrimination. Not having exposure and close relationships with certain populations of people, they've been able to set up these biases and stereotypes over the years." She added that the individual backgrounds of specific officers probably contribute to this, including where they grow up, their parents and the beliefs with which they are raised.

"I think it culminates in them getting positions like police officers, where they have this unrestrained power, unchecked," Woody-Cooper told Salon. "It's kind of a chicken-or-the-egg thing. I think certain types of personalities are attracted to being police officers, maybe those who want power and feel like they haven't been able to take advantage of people."

Dennis Parker, director of the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, pointed to history as well as psychology as a guide.

"I think a lot of it comes from the fact that for really a large part of the history of the police department, part of their job was to treat people of color, particularly black people, differently," Parker explained. "Law enforcement was in some cases based in doing slave patrols to look for people who had escaped, and also to enforce laws that included segregation and things like that. There is a long history of it."

He also argued that police culture "permits and in some ways encourages violence," particularly through laws that actively militarize them. This can be a recipe for disaster: Citing the story of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland who was shot by police while playing with a toy gun in a park, Parker explained that "you're giving power to people, who even if they are not explicitly racist, are affected by the same kind of implicit biases that everyone else is." In Rice's case, he noted that "there is a lot of research that shows that police and people in general tend to overestimate the age of black children and also black women, and so therefore feel a greater amount of threat and are more likely to respond as if they feel they are under threat, even if the circumstances don't warrant that."

Parker also ticked off a tendency among law enforcement to view areas with large African American populations as "battlegrounds," the fact that politicians like President Donald Trump use war-like language to describe the job facing police officers, and the trend of using police officers for jobs for which they're ill-equipped, like treating people with mental health problems.

"There is the old saying that, if you give someone a hammer, every problem looks like a nail," Parker told Salon. "I think that there is a tendency to treat everything as a situation where violence is appropriate or use of force is the appropriate response."

L. Song Richardson, Dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law, believes that the racist cops can be split into two categories.

"We have the outright bigots, and because bigotry exists in our broader society, it's unsurprising that it also exists within police departments just as it would exist in any organization, in any institution," Richardson told Salon. "And then we have individuals who consciously think of themselves as egalitarian and fair, who would not associate themselves with outright bigotry, but who still engage in actions that a bigot would engage in. And that's because of their unconscious racial biases that they learned from living in a country that has been under white supremacy for centuries."

Like Parker, Richardson located much of the problem in the history behind police forces themselves.

"Policing practices that have not changed," Richardson explained. "If we think about the history of policing from the South, where it came out of the slave patrols and then police officers, as instruments of the state, also helped to enforce Jim Crow laws."

She added, "We can trace back from today, all the way back to the South and the way that police departments were created."

The next question is what policies can effectively address the problem of police racism and violence. On that, the experts diverged.

"The changes that occur have to be really broad, systematic ones," Parker said. "It's not enough to say we have to have some training or we have to hire more police offices of color. We really have to look at a question of how we truly assure safety, how we assure that whatever system is in place protects everyone and not just some people, whatever it would be." He added that the Defund the Police movement "comes from the recognition that the amount of money that's spent on law enforcement means that there's less money that's available for social services, for education, for job training, for the things that might themselves make communities far more safe."

He also emphasized, "At least one of the absolutely mandatory things is that the police can not be viewed as being above the law."

Richardson identified specific problems that law enforcement agencies need to address, telling Salon that the problems of police racism and violence won't be fixed "unless we have the stomach to [confront] problematic policing practices, such as stops and frisks and the war on drugs, unless we have the stomach to change the way that police departments train their officers, and unless we are willing to change the problematic Fourth Amendment doctrines that facilitate the type of practices that lead to racialized violence," including "qualified immunity cases that allow police officers to engage in shows of force with people of color and chase them without any reasonable suspicion or probable cause."

She concluded, "It's a whole system. It's the police departments, it's the training, it's the laws that apply to them, and the judges who allow these practices to continue based on the doctrine that they embrace."

Dr. Woody-Cooper concluded that "abolishing police could be a good thing, if I can see details about what that looks like" because the problem has gotten so bad.

"You have to start from scratch to rebuild because I think there's so much corruption and so much education and behavior that has been allowed to continue for generations," Dr. Woody-Cooper explained. "I don't know if it's possible to clean that up. I don't know if it's possible to make the type of change that's necessary because police don't really like to hold other police accountable."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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